Johnnie Pugh (1926–)
Johnnie Pugh, a pioneer in community organizing, advocacy, and activism, was instrumental in building one of the first multiracial social organizations in Arkansas. Pugh was also an Arkansan New Party pioneer, city director, nurse, and businesswoman.
Johnnie Beatrice Newton was born on October 1, 1926, in Snyder (Ashley County) to Moses (Mote) Newton and Odessa Newton. She began living with her aunt, Mannie Phillips, at an early age to attend school and church in Mount Olive (Ashley County). As the school did not exceed the ninth grade, she returned to Hamburg (Ashley County) and worked in the fields. She also helped to deliver babies in Bradley County while practicing midwifery and worked in private home cleaning. In December 1948, she married Jasper Pugh.
While Johnnie Pugh was practicing midwifery, a nurse encouraged her to study nursing. She decided to finish her high school education and pursue a nursing career. During this time, the Hamburg and Crossett (Ashley County) school districts were undergoing consolidation, and Pugh applied for a position as a school bus driver. In fall 1953, she became the first woman to drive a school bus in Ashley County.
By January 1957, Pugh was divorced. On May 26, 1958, she graduated from T. W. Daniels High School and, shortly afterward, relocated to Little Rock (Pulaski County) to attend the Little Rock Vocational Nursing School. During her nursing career, she worked at the University Medical Center (UAMS), St. Vincent Infirmary, Resthaven Nursing Home, Trinity Nursing Home, and United Friends Nursing Home. Pugh also worked on the St. Vincent Women’s Advisory Board. She retired as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) from the Veterans Administration Hospital at Fort Roots.
In the 1970s, Pugh and her neighbor Gloria Wilson were eager to advocate for low- and moderate-income families and the elderly. Their first program resulted in the dispensing of furniture to needy families, a million-dollar program that was administered by the Arkansas Department of Public Welfare and Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Pugh and other members of ACORN worked to address deficiencies in services in neighborhoods; transform citizen action by encouraging local leaders to become active in politics and by teaching local leaders community organizational skills; and force improvements in traffic control, garbage services, school lunch programs, and free tax assistance. ACORN also informed and engaged community members with publications and radio station segments titled “Something You Should Know.” During the time Pugh was the state chairperson, ACORN advocated for sick-day pay, childcare assistance, and raising the minimum wage to a living wage. She also established ACORN recognition day on June 17, 1995, in honor of the leading example Arkansas provided for other states and communities.
In August 1975, Pugh established a home-based employment agency, Pugh’s Placement Service, LLC, which employed over twenty workers until its dissolution in the early 2000s. In March 1978, Pugh married B. C. Cato.
In 1998, as a New Party member, Pugh was elected to represent Ward 1 on Little Rock’s Board of Directors. She and her constituents published the “What’s Going on in Ward 1” newsletter every two months. She assisted and spearheaded the revitalization of several lots in the Little Rock inner-city area. She supported increased wages for Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) employees and worked to invest in the city’s southern and eastern ends. She also traveled abroad to strengthen and expand sister state relationships. Pugh, along with the New Party, addressed issues that were overlooked by more established parties, including the lack of fair housing options, police brutality, gangs, and racial intolerance.
Pugh has received many awards from secular and religious organizations. She is a member of the Holy Cross Missionary Baptist Church, Order of Eastern Star PHA (Prince Hall Affiliation), Heroines of Jericho PHA, Heroines of Templars Crusades PHA, Order of the Golden Circle PHA, and Daughters of Isis. She has also been the subject of various documentaries, including The Organizer, directed by Nick Taylor.
For additional information:
Johnnie B. Pugh Papers, BC.MSS.09.15. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas. Finding aid online at https://arstudies.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/findingaids/id/12535/rec/2 (accessed May 31, 2023).
Johnson, Jajuan. Interview with Johnnie Pugh, November 29, 2006. Butler Center Digital Collections. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas. https://arstudies.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p1532coll1/id/2040/rec/1 (accessed May 31, 2023).
Sullivan, K. “Johnnie Pugh: An Army of One.” Powerplay Magazine (September/October 2003): 28–30.
Candace Latrese Owens
Central Arkansas Library System
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